Taking Money Out of Politics: A New York Case Study

January 9, 2018

As part of our ongoing series about Voqal’s philanthropic investments aimed at getting money out of politics, we take a look at past efforts at addressing campaign finance reform in New York City.

In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, many eyes turned to New York as a state ready for change. New York City provided a template with a public finance law on the books since 1988 that is, according to the League of Women Voters, widely regarded to be “effective, functional and well enforced.” Key provisions include disclosure, contribution limits, a 6:1 match and regulation and enforcement among others.

Persuaded by the case for change in New York, Voqal made substantial (c)(4) contributions of $350,000 and $250,000 in 2013 and 2014, respectively, to support a campaign co-led by Citizen Action of New York and the Working Families Organization.

In 2013, an attempt to pass legislation for comprehensive campaign finance reform failed. Advocates prevented a “compromise bill” from being passed that would have been counterproductive. But the issue was not dead.

In 2014, advocates worked through a series of complex negotiations with Governor Cuomo and his staff to include comprehensive campaign finance reform in his State of the State address and the Executive Budget. After the proposed budget was introduced with the carefully crafted provisions intact, the coalition mobilized support from the grassroots, the media and political champions in the State Assembly. Right up until within 24 hours of the budget vote in late March, political insiders were forecasting a win for Fair Elections. But in the face of stiff Republican-led opposition, the Governor’s support crumbled and the budget was passed with the measure omitted and a promise to revisit the issue post-budget.

According to the advocates interviewed for this evaluation, while these legislative battles ended in defeat, Voqal’s investment in New York had lasting effects on three sets of players: journalists, legislators and reform coalition members that create assets for future legislative attempts. One advocate reports that the intensity of interaction and communication with these three audiences during 2013 and 2014 would not have been possible without substantial (c)(4) resources. That advocate summarized the positive impacts of the New York campaign as follows.

Media now integrates a money-in-politics lens in reporting and follows the money trail to hold elected officials accountable and call out malfeasance and conflicts of interest.

“It definitely changed the way the capitol press corps covers the legislature not just on reform issues. [Now] when they cover policy-making they draw attention to who is funding each side and what do those interests really want. I think that’s really important on the level of having the public know and having legislators realize, ‘if you are making policy that’s for the good of your donors and not your constituents it’s going to get exposed.’ Reporters look differently at policymaking, the role of money and also their role in exposing it.”

Strengthened and expanded bench of legislative champions.

“We have a record number of women of color in our Assembly right now and a lot of those Assembly members are brand new. Most of them came in as already being strong supporters of public funding of elections because the ones that are New York City-based are familiar with the New York City system and they just went through running for office without public funding and saw how difficult it was for them as women of color to raise money.”

Broadened the movement for reform.

“We came at it from more of an economic justice perspective, but there were not a lot of other groups working on this. Then with the big push in 2013 and 2014 … that brought in a lot of other community organizing groups and labor unions who maybe had positions and support in the past or some had never even looked at [campaign finance reform]. But because we had the resources to go out and do tons of presentations and talk to both the rank and file and the leadership, we got a ton of organizations to sign onto the campaign; but even more to take it really seriously and also to understand how much the rules of the game impact them.”

While this effort was ultimately unsuccessful at achieving the policy goal, it created an informed and advanced understanding among the media, the public, advocates and state lawmakers that will provide a strong framework for future success. For a more complete look at Voqal’s efforts to get money out of politics check out the Taking Money Out of Politics: A Weighty Lift and Balancing the Scales: The Fight for Our Democracy reports.